Westminster watch: Regional spotlight

Airports in the UK’s regions could form a vital part of the government’s post-Brexit strategy

For a long time the political focus on airports has largely been dominated by the Heathrow/south-east runways debate. The same issue has been casting its shadow over UK politics for three decades or more.

One of the least remarked upon effects of this indecision over new runways in the south-east is how it has sucked up all the political oxygen for broader contemplation of what UK regional airports need to thrive. But this could be about to change for several reasons.

For all its faults, Theresa May’s premiership has had at its core a recognition that the Brexit vote was on some level a reaction to certain regions feeling left behind by a globalised economy. Her first speech as PM and, arguably more importantly, the new Industrial Strategy, recognised this alongside the need to act to ensure growth benefits the whole country.

The proposed solution is a mixture of skills reform, supporting industries of the future and infrastructure investment. They are looking at what’s needed to equip regional economies to thrive in a post-EU world and rebalance the UK economy. At the very top, the political wind is blowing in the right direction for regional airports.

The government has been vocal on its plans to invest in infrastructure – see wifi connectivity on the railways. They’ve been supported (or chivvied) on this by new regional mayors and transport bodies (Transport for the North, for example) which have ensured that their home turfs are at the centre of investment plans.

Curiously though, the regional airports haven’t been as central to this political narrative so far. This is partly because commuting rail transport is higher up the political priority list, but also because there’s been no natural point at which their fate is on the agenda.

A change of emphasis
However, this year we are promised a new UK Aviation Strategy to shape the future of the aviation industry up to 2050 – how the government can support future growth of the industry through regional airports is likely to be at the forefront of the debate.

A new generation of aircraft also has its part to play. One argument against expanding hubs has centred on the introduction of new aircraft enabling point-to-point airports to serve longer routes more economically. As we know, some air routes are impractical because smaller aircraft don’t have the necessary range and the economics of using larger aircraft don’t stack up.

The decline in A380 superjumbo orders and the introduction of smaller aircraft with longer flying ranges may finally enable regional airports to sustain key direct business routes instead of relying on connecting to hubs. If such a trend were established, that would give an additional imperative to politicians to get behind regional airports and argue their case.

A government focused on rebalancing the economy, regional mayors looking out for their patches, a white paper on aviation and technology advances opening up direct connections to business centres – these developments could combine to put regional airports in the political spotlight.

This is the time for the business travel industry to make its voice heard and ensure we are clear on what travellers are looking for from these regional airports.

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